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'The Thing Is to Be Light as Air': An Interview with Mai Al-Nakib

[Mai Al-Nakib. Photo: Omar Nakib] [Mai Al-Nakib. Photo: Omar Nakib]

Last spring, Bloomsbury published Mai Al-Nakib’s debut work of fiction, The Hidden Light of Objects (released in the US this January). Since then the collection of short stories has won praise and acclaim from across the globe, including the First Book Award at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014.

The Hidden Light of Objects is not so much a collection but rather, to borrow from the language of Gilles Deleuze, an assemblage of fictions whose themes, characters and things are deeply entangled with one another. Especially suggestive in this regard is Al-Nakib’s figure of the bougainvillea—that vine with such an evocative local name, majnuna (madwoman) and which climbs over so many of the walls of the Arab Gulf. It is no accident that the plant flourishes in Al-Nakib’s stories, and its papery petals and thorny, twisted vines seem especially apt figures for exploring the fragility of childhood and the thinness of the petroleum-based Arab cosmopolitanism that once thrived in Kuwait.

Al-Nakib’s stories speak an English whose capital is somewhere east of Eden and north of Riyadh. As if in answer to the plodding critic who will ask her the tired question, “Why did you choose to write in English?” One of her polyglot characters simply suggests, “Languages are for everyone.” Al-Nakib’s fictions belong to Arab literature in the sense that the author is Kuwaiti and that Kuwait, like other Gulf states, belongs to the Arab world. But just as Kuwait belongs to a much broader, diffuse world of transnational labor and capital flows, these stories belong to something larger than Arab literature. Readers looking for “the Middle East” will find it everywhere in Al-Nakib’s stories, not as an object of study, but as a world where people live and yearn and remember. She writes of Kuwait on every page here, but it is as much an object of desire—or a dream—than that actual city-state that was taken away one day in August 1990. Similarly, these stories are testament to the fact that when Kuwait was returned to its inhabitants, it was broken. Al-Nakib endeavors to put the city back together again, but she also knows well that while literature can console, it cannot replace.

Mai Al-Nakib spoke with Elliott Colla earlier this month in Washington, D.C.

What made you write this collection?

One of the main reasons I turned to fiction was because it felt at the time like it was the only form of writing that could enable me to access a version of life in the Middle East other than the one that was being touted as definitive. Fiction, and the short story in particular, seemed to have the flexibility necessary to construct other versions of experience than the rather conservative and one-dimensional versions depicted in the media (both in the West and in the region itself). Fiction has always provided me with access to worlds and experiences elsewhere, and in writing this collection, I hoped I could do the same. In a general sense, I was motivated to write these stories because I wanted to experiment with the process of remembering; I wanted to test the parameters of memory, how the things we remember impinge on the present in interesting, sometimes disturbing ways.

So many of your stories involve hidden texts. Lists, and diaries and letters that are concealed in boxes, put in drawers, stuck in desks, secreted under mattresses and so on. Are you telling us something about writing or about reading?

Maybe both. Texts we write and texts we read are almost always ambiguous. It isn’t that they hold a single secret or answer but rather that they express or involve endless secrets and possible answers. It depends on who is writing and it depends on who happens to be reading. And even the same person reading the same text, ten or fifteen or twenty years later, will not uncover the same secrets they did when they first read the book in question. Writing also slips away from the writer, not just when a book is published and is read by others, but even in the process of writing it. This can cause wonderful accidents for the writer, who may find herself in a place or with a character or idea that she didn’t anticipate at the outset.

The narrator of “Chinese Apples” talks about story objects, which she says “are both objects and stories.” And in fact, in each of your narratives, there is what seems to be a dialectic that opens up between human characters and the objects they are surrounded by. It’s not that one comes first and the other second, but something else. In your telling, the world of living beings is not separated from that of inanimate objects, but composed of it, or in relation to it. Does this mean the human world of feeling and thought is more material than we suppose? Or is it that the world around us is alive, is enchanted?

Yes and yes. Feelings or affects are composed through our encounters with bodies—both animate and inanimate. We often do not pay sufficient attention to the ways in which inanimate objects intersect with animate life or, even further, the ways in which the division between inanimate and animate is a normative construction rather than an essential opposition. To recognize this is an ethical move, one that compels responsibility toward all that is supposedly inanimate or nonorganic and considered decidedly separate from ourselves (think here of the environment, both natural and built).

There’s a great line in One Hundred Years of Solitude, spoken by the gypsy: “Things have a life of their own. It’s just a matter of waking up their souls.” I don’t understand “soul” here in any religious or spiritual sense. The life (or light or soul) of objects is awakened through our realization of what such objects can do. Objects have the capacity to trigger new or forgotten sensations which, in turn, can remind us of something we once understood or a way of life we once thought might be possible or a trajectory we never anticipated. In this sense, the world around us—forever extended—is indeed enchanted.

In the final story of the collection there is a girl who climbs into her mother’s closet and curls up in her mothers’ clothes. And she does this because she desperately misses her mother, as if her mother’s things would compensate. But that’s not the only example—this dynamic is all over your stories. They are filled with people clinging to objects in order to live. It’s like the objects are alive or that people are alive only in relation to things. It seems there’s something really profound about this observation.

It’s when you lose someone that you really experience this. A friend once told me the story of how his father passed away in a hospital. As all the official and heartless paperwork was being taken care of, someone came out and gave him a plastic bag of the things that were left: a wallet, a watch, a ring. To me, those objects are heartbreaking. That was my friend’s dad in a bag.

Think about the time it takes for you to choose your objects. Not your everyday objects, necessarily, but the things that really matter to you. Sometimes these objects are accidental, not intentional. It could be something you just happened to come by, or it could be something important someone who matters gave to you. Either way, it stays around for a while and becomes the kind of object I’m talking about. When you’re a kid and you see a particular object all the time, your entire childhood can come to inhere in it. You may become extremely attached to it. Objects become a way to cushion the fear we have that everything can be lost. Even so, the things we love the most can themselves be lost, and that can feel unbearable. This feeling is compounded when someone you love dies and you have to deal with their stuff.

The collection opens with a beautiful Bergson quote about objects, which makes so much sense given that your scholarship is so engaged with Gilles Deleuze and he is so engaged with Bergson. I didn’t realize this connection until I almost finished reading The Hidden Light of Objects, but your stories are doing all sorts of Deleuzian work. And this has everything to do with what you’re saying about objects, doesn’t it?

If Deleuze’s ideas come up in my work it’s not because I’m making a conscious effort. It’s because I have internalized his ideas so completely, along with the ideas of those he cared about most, especially Spinoza. As a student, I was lucky to be able to study Spinoza with Deleuze’s student, Réda Bensmaïa. We looked at the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and The Ethics, among other works, and these have figured prominently in my scholarship. But these ideas also figure into how I think about and engage with the world. More than citing Deleuze as an academic exercise, involving Deleuze in everyday life is what seems most important to me.

Deleuze had dialogues with philosophers—Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche, Bergson. These dialogues or negotiations are, in part, about how to live in the world. They certainly help me live in the world. Given the difficult circumstances in the region, I don’t see how I could live without these philosophical ideas. Some people turn to religion to give them faith. But for me it has always been literature and Deleuze.

And then, not too long ago, I was teaching Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida in a class, and suddenly realized The Hidden Light of Objects had ripped off that book in so many ways! In it, Barthes is mourning his mother. He writes about trying to recover his lost mother through photographs, only he can’t find her. He looks at all these photos of the mother he thought he knew. He pores over images that were familiar to him and still he can’t find her. He finds her in an unexpected place, in a photo that is unfamiliar to him because she is young in it, a child or teenager. In that photo he rediscovers her essence or aura. But then the rest of the book is about how, in fact, it’s really impossible to recapture any essence or aura through photographs or objects, that there is only a constant search. It’s a melancholic exercise, rather than a process of mourning, because you continue to want to hold on to the lost object, to never let it go.

The photograph is also about death; it says that this person in the photo is already dead, or will die, but also, that you will die too. Photographs recur a number of times in my book. I didn’t realize that Roland Barthes was haunting some of my stories until I reread Camera Lucida and saw how much of it had stayed with me.

For instance, Barthes writes about the way a photo can stab the context the viewer stands in. He writes about the madness that you can detect in a photo if the subject in the photo is looking straight into the camera, that is, staring straight at you. These ideas are important to a number of my stories as well. The word that Deleuze uses in a similar register is delirium—to express the same sense of something escaping or coming unhinged. The best novels have that element of delirium, take us along, and we go with them. Delirium is what makes the world an enchanted place. It is enchanted not because of anything supernatural, but because of what people can do, what they can create in fiction and music and art. These are the enchantments that allow us to go beyond the habitual.

The title of your collection made me think of Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And the book even comes up in one of the stories. Is Kundera an important writer for you?

There’s no direct link to Kundera’s novel. Or rather, the connection wasn’t conscious, but I like the idea now that you ask! Kundera is an important writer to me. I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being when I was fourteen. I didn’t understand it at all, but I loved it. It’s been a long time since I’ve reread it. It was a book I read at a certain moment, and it has stayed with me. Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, which I return to often, contains some of the most beautiful passages ever written about the novel. The element that makes the novel completely singular, he writes, is that it deals with uncertainty. It doesn’t offer any certainties. The novel affirms the great uncertain adventure of life.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is Nietzschean, which is probably why I like it so much. Or think of the great line from Beckett, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Things are miserable, and yet we can still affirm the endless possibilities of what life can do, what it can become. And we go on. There’s a lightness in letting some of that misery go. It’s a Nietzschean affirmation that life is nothing but difference; the only thing that returns is difference. And if you are to live, you need to have the capacity to say “yes” to that, even in the darkest times.

Like Kundera’s novel, my stories were written during a very dark time, both in the region and beyond. Despite that—and despite all the loss that pervades the stories, all the laments they contain—at their heart there is a lightness. The mother in the last story says, “The thing is to be light as air.” She says that before the terrible things that happen to her. What her kids hold onto is that affirmation, that despite the deepest sorrows, you need to learn levity. Her daughter remembers her mother’s words. That is what’s going to save them as a family. There are many broken families in my stories. But this story is different—it ends with a degree of hope. With lightness. Because they have a sense that things can get better—not in a romantic or idealistic way—but on a very small scale, the scale of family.

So if the novel is about contingency, why do so many novelists write in the past tense? Wouldn’t the present tense be a better way to capture this, or to say it more pedantically, wouldn’t the imperfective aspect be more fitting for narrating contingency? I think about this a lot, and others are too. So many English-language writers seem to be experimenting with it at the moment.

The present tense is scary. There’s a kind of shakiness to being in the present. Uncertainty depends on other elements too, including tone or the position of the narrator. But in the present tense, neither the narrator nor the reader knows what’s going to happen next, and this intensifies the sense of uncertainty in the novel. It’s a compelling tense. I use it in a number of my stories and in all the vignettes, which precede each of the ten stories, although often the voice in the present tense is looking back.

You could have stories about contingency and uncertainty, with uncertainty as a theme. But narrating in the present tense compels uncertainty to be more than just a theme. Right?

I would say that it’s not only an issue of tense because the quality of uncertainty is inherent to the novel itself. This is especially true in the act of writing it; you’re uncertain as you write. Maybe not everyone is, but I definitely am. I don’t know for sure where I’m headed when I write. Maybe I like the experience of uncertainty while writing because I enjoy it so much when I’m reading. This is close to what Kundera says about the novel. It is part of a shift in sensibility to a time when things are experienced as less certain. So for him, Cervantes is the key figure—Don Quixote is perfectly emblematic of a world where uncertainty reigns. This is our world, and the novel remains the best genre to explore it.

Many of these stories hinge on the experience of a young girl, just on the cusp of leaving childhood behind forever. This passage is one of loss, but it is also not sad. It is, above all, delicate—like those small glass boxes that appear in so many of your stories. What is so delicate here? The experience of childhood ? Or its memory?

Both, I would think. The experience of childhood is irretrievable—there is no going back. Paradoxically, however, remembering ephemeral moments of childhood becomes a way to look forward. Remembering elements of the past, of a childhood we have long since put away, might make it possible to bring forward some of the enthusiasms and hopes we experienced early on, dampened with the passing of time. In the residues of childhood we can attempt to decipher the possibility of a different (better?) future. Walter Benjamin conveys this beautifully in Berlin Childhood around 1900. But the chance of this happening is slim. It is a delicate, fragile opportunity that must be cultivated and protected.

Similarly, this is a childhood in Kuwait, a country that is here always teetering on the brink of the losses occasioned by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the country. What exactly are you trying to do by restaging the contingency of those years right before the invasion?

To remind ourselves precisely of their contingency. Things could have gone in a different direction. It is now too late for some things, alas. As one of the characters in the title story says, “There is no going back.” But to go forward necessitates looking back. Not in anger, not with nostalgia (or at least not only with nostalgia), but in an effort to remember that things were different then and, in some ways, they were better. The present is not determined and neither is the future. The way we reconsider the events of the past or certain features of the past, might remind us of this, might provide us with unexpected tools to cobble together a more adventurous, more experimental community and time to come.

This comes up most explicitly in the final story in the collection, the one about the Kuwaiti woman who is kidnapped and taken to Iraq as the last Iraqi soldiers evacuate. And then she is held hostage for years as the two states negotiated reparations. How many people endured that experience?

There were approximately six hundred POWs. For a small population, that’s a large number. The POW issue was a major one after the war. So many lost family members; sons, sisters, fathers simply disappeared, were killed or taken to Iraq as prisoners. A number of years ago, a mass grave was found. Families that had been waiting for years, hoping that their loved ones were still alive, discovered that, in fact, they were dead. Not everyone was as lucky as Zeina, the mother in the title story of the collection, who is freed after a decade.

I recently read Sinan Antoon’s novel The Corpse Washer, which is just so powerful. It is overwhelming to even try to imagine the bodies upon bodies upon bodies that are piling up in Iraq, in our region as a whole—the ruins of history. Antoon captures the visceral quality of these losses, an aspect elided on the evening news.

What is the reception of a novel like that in Kuwait? Is there space for reading about Iraqi suffering?

There is, I believe, much sympathy for what Iraq is going through. People remember the past and Saddam Hussein, but, in general, Iraq is no longer the enemy. The invasion is not discussed all that much. It’s not taught in schools, at least not in any historical or socio-political register. The younger generation know that there was an invasion, but they don’t carry the same baggage as my generation or my parents’ generation. People who were seven or older during the invasion remember, but the generation after that does not. Sadly, they don’t remember that Palestinians were once an integral part of our national community. Happily, they don’t remember that there was a misguided perception after the invasion that all Palestinians “betrayed” Kuwait. For this generation of young Kuwaitis, Palestine today is a place where people are oppressed and under attack. Iraq is a place that is unraveling as a result of occupation. They seem genuinely sympathetic to both situations, but I don’t think they consider them in relation to Kuwait.

Here’s the tedious question, and I apologize for it. Even though Waguih Ghali published his Beer in the Snooker Club more than 50 years ago, and even though we have plenty of established Anglophone Arab writers (like Ahdaf Soueif, Jamal Mahjoub, Nureddin Farah) some critics are still surprised that Arabs write in English. What do you say to people who ask (in English) why you write in English?

Writing in English for me was not a choice. Because I spent most of the first six years of my life in the US, English was my first language. At the same time, English reflects the reality of those of us living between worlds—linguistic, cultural, geographical. While there might be some pitfalls for an Arab writing in English, there are also certain benefits—reaching a wider audience, for example. Ultimately, I do not experience English as a burden. Writers begin as readers, and the books I read were always books written in English or translated into English.

At the same time, there’s often disappointment among Arab critics that an Arab author doesn’t write in Arabic. What to you say to people who ask (in Arabic) why you don’t write in Arabic?

An Arab critic recently wrote that because I don’t think or dream in Arabic, I would not be able to adequately convey the kinds of things I would like to convey to readers in the region. I can’t agree with that assessment. While it’s true I might not be able to convey in English certain experiences or feelings that only Arabic can convey, English, as utilized by Arab writers, can convey other experiences or feelings, no less important. Rather than disappointment over Arab writers not writing in Arabic, I think we should feel excited that our region is diverse and rich enough to produce Arabs who can express such a wide range of experiences in a wide range of languages.

Writers write precisely because they believe literature can cross all kinds of borders—linguistic, identic, geographical, temporal, experiential, and so on. It is an extremely narrow and one-dimensional understanding of what it means to be an “authentic” Arab today—and a “proper” Arab writer more specifically—if we insist upon limiting what language that writer can think and dream and write in. If literary experiments were thus restricted, literature would be a rather fallow field. In fact, it would be incredibly boring.

The short skirts and uncovered hair of your protagonists are likely to win you the unfortunate label of “secular” or “liberal” or “westernized” writer, as if these were names to aspire to, and as if they would describe the project you’re presenting here. As people start calling you these things—in essence, praising you for not being like other Arabs or Muslims—how will you respond to them?

I am secular and liberal (in the particular sense that latter term carries in the Middle East) and, as a result of personal and historical contingencies beyond my control, I’m probably also westernized. But these things don’t make me exceptional in the region or any less Arab. Conservatives and extremists, as we know, exist in every corner, not only in the Arab/Muslim world. If we seek to transform rather than reinforce such dynamics, we need to understand the conditions of their emergence, critically and honestly, and not simply praise what we prefer and condemn what we abhor.

If you prefer, email your comments to info@jadaliyya.com.

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